With our bikes liberated of most of the mud we continue down the road. I'm aware of the grinding of brake rotors as we slosh through puddles. I'm not trying to avoid the puddles because they present an opportunity to wash yet more mud off my bike. The downside is that more mud and water are being thrown up by the back wheel. I can feel it running down my back into my chamois. If my back looks anything like Merak's and Carlo's then it's an almighty mess. They look like ninja turtles with little brown shells on their backs.
As we close on Standerton we are squeezed between the railway track and a large settlement. Our jeep track disappears and we are reduced to weaving along a foot path trying as best we can to avoid the piles of trash. Every now and then we have to stop and carry our bikes over trenches that have been dug to drain water from the shacks toward the rail line. As soon as is practical we cross to the other side and find another jeep track which takes us into town.
Carlo has his mind set on stopping at the Engen garage that has a shop and an attached Wimpy. Arriving there he convinces one of the fuel jockeys to let us use a fire hose to clean our bikes. To top off his bike clean he hoses down his shoes and squelches off to the Wimpy leaving Merak and I to go through the same cleansing ritual.
Bikes cleaned, water bottles filled and Cokes stashed in our packs Merak and I look for Carlo. We find him seated at a table in the Wimpy. He is surrounded by a puddle of muddy water. A muddy trail evidences his walk from the door to the closest table. We look like we have just stepped out the ring of a mud wrestling match. I hesitate and Carlo waves me over.
"It's fine, I've spoken to the manager. We'll square up for the inconvenience." Eish. With this much mess we'll have to put that down as budget repayment on our credit cards.
There are lengths of paper towel draped over our chairs. I plop down and ease my backpack off. In spite of my best efforts I dump a load of mud on the white tiled floor. I am aware of the looks we are getting. Everyone, I repeat, everyone is looking at us. The staff, the patrons and even the people standing in line for takeaway's. My Garmin is playing up and I need to get my spare from the bag on my bike. It takes me a few minutes to pluck up the courage to run the gauntlet of stares and snickers. As I walk back to my bike I am reminded of a description in the book My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. He writes about his sister Margot walking along trailing yards of scent. Except that I'm leaving behind a trail of mud. It's dripping off me. With every footfall bits of mud cascade off me like confetti at a hippos wedding. Fortunately most people seem to find it amusing. I don't. And neither do a couple seated a few tables from us. I don't blame them—we are a filthy raggedy crew. To make matters worse our waitron makes a mess of our order and our stay at the Wimpy is extended.
Bill settled, penance paid and apologies offered we head back into the street to retrieve our bikes. The route out of town takes us through the 'burbs. We are soon reunited with our jeep track and bobble along toward Volksrust 88km away. It's a fairly flat section and even with a little mud it shouldn't take more than 5 hours. With over 100 km's under our wheels we can feel the gentle incline which isn't made any easier when we have to ride over long stretches of discarded gravel that has been left over from railway ballast cleaning operations. It's getting warm and Merak comments that he might have underestimated his hydration needs... again. Last time we attempted this section Merak ran out of water and I rationed him to one sip for every few kilometres. Those were the longest kilometres ever.
Carlo is dropping off and we wait occasionally for him to catch up. We try riding slower but once you're grooved in an hours long rhythm it's hard to gear down. 50 km's out of Standerton where the train line heads into a tunnel we get to a tar road and wait for Carlo. We expect him to be one or two minutes behind us but after 10 minutes there is still no sign of him. Just as he comes into view I get a phone call to let me know that Carlo has pulled the plug. Sure enough, as he pulls up he tells us he has decided that he has gone far enough. He's also not feeing great and reckons he is still within retrieval distance from home. He has made a call and is happy to wait for the cavalry to come fetch him. It's a lucky break for Merak who fills his bottles from Carlo's Camelbak. With the Musketeers down to two we continue on.
As the railway line reappears we have conflicting directions from our Garmins. Mine has us leaving the tar road and Merak's wants us to continue down the tar. The tar section would be a lot easier but knowing Elton's aversion for tar I opt for the harder jeep track routing. It's muddy and rough going so it must be right.
We arrive in Volksrust at 5pm. That's about an hour slower than I'd hoped for. It's muggy and I'm exhausted. We make our way to the Wimpy. This time we order takeaways and sit on the pavement and do our best to eat. A quick calculation has us a little over a third of the way to the sea. We've still got 360 kilometres to go with 4800m of cumulative ascent to tackle. We've got a long way to go. Imagine standing on the start line of a race like 36One feeling this exhausted.